Hey Bart Ehrman, I’m Obsessed with Jesus, Too — But You’ve Got Him All Wrong

Why the debate over Jesus’ divinity matters.

Note: This essay is in response to Bart Ehrman’s “Why I Am Obsessed with Jesus.” Both scholars have recently published books about whether or not Jesus believed he was God.

I grew up as a “none.” My family wasn’t particularly anti-religious; we were just not interested in religion. I live in Australia, a very secular country with low church attendance. It has more Buddhists than Baptists. Jesus was a complete non-entity in my suburban world. I am ashamed to say that, growing up as a Gen-Xer in the 80s and 90s, everything I knew about Jesus I learned from Ned Flanders of The Simpsons.

Then a funny thing happened. While serving in the Australian Army, I visited a local church at the invitation of a friend. It turned out to be a fateful encounter. I had all my presuppositions blown away. These Christian folks weren’t the hypocritical, moralizing geriatrics that my parents and primetime TV had warned me about. These ordinary church folks were nice people — and not merely nice, but crazy nice, and they made a big impression on me.

Hanging out with them, I started to learn about Jesus. I read the Gospels and realized that I had been sold a lie. Jesus wasn’t a fiction — he was a historical figure, and if he really rose from the dead, then it was a game changer.

My game changed. I did my homework. I got religion.

After some soul searching, I resigned from the army, went to seminary, and eventually earned my PhD in religious studies. Now I’m a seminary professor who gets to spend his time talking about his one, all-consuming passion: the Lord Jesus Christ.

At one level, this is an academic activity. I’ve written technical monographs about the historical Jesus and presented papers at conferences on esoteric scholarly subjects pertaining to Jesus. I have also contributed to popular-level books about Jesus. I am a Jesus nerd.

HGBJCoverImageMy latest book (a collection of essays co-authored with four other scholars) argues that belief in Jesus’ full divinity was not a later invention, but is rooted in Jesus’ own claims about himself and in the testimony of the early church. We wrote it because . . . well, there is this guy, Bart Ehrman, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He converted from being a fundamentalist Christian to becoming an agnostic, and he’s something of a celebrity skeptic. His latest book, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, claims that Jesus did not think he was God and that he didn’t rise from the dead. But his disciples thought he did, and on that basis, they thought he was a human being who was made divine. Later, says Ehrman, some like St. Paul thought Jesus was an angel who became human, and later again, some like St. John regarded him a pre-existent being who was incarnated as a man.

I saw big posters for Ehrman’s book at a biblical studies conference in Baltimore last November. Immediately, I knew that my email box would fill up with nervous queries from friends and strangers because some colleague at work had read the book and was trying to explain that the whole “Jesus is God” thing was just a big mistake. So I decided that I’d like to do some preventative pastoral care and try to get a word in before all the hoopla started.

I ran the idea of a quick-time response to Ehrman by some friends who are leading scholars in the field of early Christian studies. They agreed to join me. These guys include Craig A. Evans (Acadia Divinity College, Canada), Simon Gathercole (Cambridge University, UK), Chris Tilling (St. Mellitus College, UK), and Chuck Hill (Reformed Theological Seminary, Florida). HarperOne was gracious enough to allow us to see a pre-pub version of Ehrman’s manuscript, and Zondervan was courageous enough to put our response on a fast-track publishing schedule. We worked hard over the Christmas break to write How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature.

Ehrman is a competent historian and a great communicator. We can affirm much of what he says. But he simply gets some things wrong — things like Jesus’ self-understanding, Jewish burial customs under Roman jurisdiction, early Christian claims about Jesus, St. Paul’s remarkably “high” estimation of Jesus, and the Christo-logic of the church’s teachings about Jesus as both fully human and fully divine.

I encourage you to read both books. Regardless of what one thinks about who is right in this scholarly melee, Ehrman and I would both agree on one thing: the debate matters. If Jesus is God, then the story of Jesus is the most important story of them all. If not, then worship of Jesus is at best a fanciful fiction and at worst has engineered the manipulation of our entire civilization. But make no mistake about it. Who Jesus is matters, and each of us needs to respond to the gnawing question that Jesus once posed to his disciples: “Who do you say I am?”

Image via Shutterstock.

Michael Bird
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  • W Maxwell Cassity-Guilliom

    The focus of this piece is split between two topics that should be distinct from one another but seem to be conflated in your article. First is the question of whether the biblical representation of jesus has him stating or believing that he is god (putting aside how much of the biblical representation is mythical). Second is whether the supernatural claims the bible makes are justifiably believable.

    To me the first question can only become interesting after the second question has been examined. Without the evidence to believe that something supernatural happened, we’re basically debating how best to put words into the mouths of ancient theologians who are possibly mythical.

    • Justin McRoberts

      As for the justifiable belief in supernatural things… most of the conversation I’ve read to the contrary basically amounts to “I don’t buy miraculous hocus-pocus and, therefore, don’t trust any documents as ‘historical’ that claim that such things happen.”

      So, I wonder how you’d go about testing the justifiability of the claims made about Jesus’ miraculous works.

      • W Maxwell Cassity-Guilliom

        That’s a good question.

        First, all claims are not created equal. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, for example “I was abducted by aliens” or “magic restored a corpse to life”. Mundane claims (“I got a new pet dog yesterday”) require very little evidence to be believable. The latter requires so little evidence that it’s believable on the lowest form of evidence, human testimony. On a related tangent, it’s unfortunate that the lowest form of evidence in science is the highest form of evidence in court.

        The gospels of the new testament were written decades after the supposed life of jesus, by people who could not have been eyewitnesses or the apostles the gospels were named after. They contain the testimony of non-eyewitnesses which was first transferred orally and much later transcribed by hand for hundreds of years, and is therefore rife with errors and other changes. On the other hand, today you can go talk to still-living eyewitnesses who will describe in detail how they were abducted by aliens, and who have passed lie tests and describe their experience consistently every time. This is far stronger evidence than anything we have for a single supernatural event from the bible, and yet it comes nowhere near being believable because human testimony is the lowest form of evidence. We are very fallible and not good at gathering data.

        It may in fact be impossible for magical claims from 2000 years ago to be justifiably believable. There’s not much recorded history from 2000 years ago since most people were illiterate, today we have so many different formats that we can cross-reference like video or audio recording devices and practically everyone in a first-world country is literate and writes often, plus everything is preserved much better. Despite this we can still search for whatever evidence there might be, which is close to zero for the existence of jesus and zero for any miracle claim.

        • Justin McRoberts

          Thanks for the response. Working backwards. Through your post:

          I suppose if we throw out the Gospels and their (very likely) source texts, there is very little about Jesus. But it seems that we’d be throwing out the gospels because of their extraordinary claims, which seems like putting the cart before the horse as historical documentation goes.

          “The gospels of the new testament were written decades after the supposed life of jesus, by people who could not have been eyewitnesses or the apostles the gospels were named after.” That’s most definitely true of the editing process, particularly of John. Yet it’s a highly debated (and highly debatable) premise to suggest that nothing about the Gospels was recorded by eye-witnesses. Too debated and debatable to be stated as fact. I teach from the Gospels and freely cop to the editing process having taken place for years after the moments they point at. I’d never push for a strict “eye-witness” understanding of all four gospel texts. And I think it’s equally slippery to suggest the opposite.

          I’m used to the idea that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” but wonder if that’s not just fun to say. Over time it has begun to feel like the beginning of a dismissal rather than a semi-objective look at a claim. By saying “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” I fear we have already saddled some claims in the “less believable” category and that dreams of bias. Most kids who find out their parents are splitting up or cheating find the claim “less believable” but it doesn’t require any different kind of evidence to be found true.

          • W Maxwell Cassity-Guilliom

            I don’t know what bias you could be referring to, unless it’s the fact that extraordinary evidence must actually be presented for extraordinary claims. If the bias in your mind is the requirement of extraordinary evidence, I will happily submit that’s the case.

            I don’t teach the gospels or personally engage in the scholarly discussion, but as I’ve said it doesn’t matter if the gospels were actually fully 100% eyewitness accounts that have been preserved perfectly. Even that does not match up to the same level of eyewitness accounts we can get today, for example, Sathya Sai Baba who died in 2011 but while alive was worshipped as a god on earth who performed miracles. His followers numbered in the millions, and you can find a staggering number of people who will honestly attest to having seen or experienced his miracles, and have preserved their testament in various media formats. Or consider how many people (mostly in latin america) who will tell you about their alien abduction story.

            That’s why eyewitness testimony is such a weak form of evidence epistemologically speaking. If there were some archaeological evidence uncovered that would be something more significant. Though it really doesn’t help the credibility of the other miracle claims in the bible that the exodus story has been so thoroughly proven mythological.